Jonny Wilkinson on Heineken Cup clash: 'I'll try not to look at this as my final visit to Twickenham...'

Wilkinson makes an emotional return to HQ with Toulon on Sunday

It is a path he could probably tread blindfolded – he is, after all, pretty much rugby’s Mr Perfect. Off the team coach, into the stadium and down beneath the expectant fans in the grandstands to the changing rooms. It is here, though, that Jonny Wilkinson’s blindfold will have to come off as instead of pushing open the door to the home dressing room he will be across the other side of the corridor.

This will be Wilkinson’s 46th playing visit to England’s headquarters spread over a decade and a half, three times for club and the rest for country, the first when he was little more than a boy. It will be a rare visit to the away dressing room and the only time, barring those Newcastle days, when he has run out onto the Twickenham turf without the majority backing of those occupying the stands.

“Just to get one shot here was great,” said Wilkinson, “I try not to look at this as if it will be the last.”

Yesterday evening he was out on the familiar turf, taking his Toulon side – he will lead them out tomorrow – through the Captain’s Run. Wilkinson and Twickenham have history.

“The stadium and what it represents have been incredible,” he said. “I have had some phenomenal memories here. I have enjoyed every second of it.”

It is a rich, rewarding story. One that encompasses 650 points for England – and an awful lot of time frozen in that particular, peculiar, bottom-out squat before each attempt at the posts – but there is not much  recent history there.

Over the last three years, as his international career meandered to its low-key finale last year, Wilkinson started only three times for England at Twickenham. It is away from HQ that he has enjoyed his Indian summer, finding another adoring audience – albeit one a rugby world removed from the one that populates Twickenham on match day – on France’s south coast.

Toulon are here, in tomorrow’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens, thanks in no small part to the man who will forever be linked to No 10. Wilkinson is the honest, solid soul of English rugby,  occasionally a spark, always steady as he goes.

Twenty-one immaculately executed points saw off Leicester in the quarter-final, 18 from the kicking tee and the final three with a drop goal dispatched with a snap that rolled back the years. In between there were a series of tackles – time after time he downed his man. It did, on the day at least, for Toby Flood, one of his successors in that England shirt. Tomorrow it is the incumbent, Owen Farrell, on the other side.

“They are cut from the same cloth,” said Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby. Above everything it is Wilkinson’s mental steel that has left a deep impression on McCall, and others. “He’s got to where he’s got to by having a strong mentality,” he said.

Wilkinson has been impressed by Farrell. They first met at the 2007 World Cup and back then Wilkinson could see there was something about the boy. “Even at his age he had what I had,” said the elder No 10.

Next month Wilkinson turns 34. He was 18 when he first played for England, coming off the Twickenham bench to replace Mike Catt on the wing, and in a sport that, as Steve Borthwick pointed out yesterday, gets physically tougher and more intense – at club as well as international level – that is a long time taking the hits.

Over the years they have taken a heavy toll – after the 2003 World Cup final Wilkinson did not pull on the white shirt again for more than 1,000 days.

At the start of this year he thought this season might be his last. A persistent groin problem suggested to him it was time to call it a day. Yet there was no shortage of dissenters; Toulon team-mates Matt Giteau, a year his junior, and Frédéric Michalak both told him to play on. His form prompted talk of a British Lions place.

“It is still too early to make a statue of Jonny,” proclaimed Mourad Boudjellal, the Toulon owner and comic-publishing magnate, of his very own comic book hero.

Wilkinson has signed on for another year. The French experience has rolled back the years. At yesterday’s press conference he switched easily between French and English, depending on the inquisitor.

“I’m excited about getting up every morning and attacking each day, and excited about playing rugby,” he said.  “I know that I’m in the right place.”

Toulon are regarded by some as an expensively assembled collection of mercenaries but Wilkinson is clearly revelling in the experience. There may be South Africans in one corner of the visitors’ dressing room, Englishmen, Frenchmen, an Argentine, a Welshman and so on, yet it is a team that Wilkinson sees.

“I’ve never really felt team spirit like this – people willing to learn, take responsibility,” he said. “Sunday is our reward for this but not an end in itself. This is part and parcel of our voyage as a club. These are the kind of matches you play rugby for.”

His opponents tomorrow are all too familiar with what he still brings to the field. David Strettle suggested Wilkinson’s work ethic still sets the benchmark for today’s England men, while, in the home dressing room, Borthwick, Saracens captain and  another former England team-mate, will preach the need to keep firm minds.

“In games like this the margins are tight,” he said. “Discipline is key, especially with Jonny Wilkinson kicking.” Something, Borthwick might have added, he can do blindfolded.

Kicking king: Wilko in numbers

73 Points scored in the Heineken Cup by Wilkinson this season

2011 Wilkinson’s previous best cup performance was two years ago – when he helped Toulon to the quarter-finals of the com

Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'